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Sometimes You Find a Winner in the Candy Corn

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I was eating some Cracker Jacks recently--the closest thing to health food one sees at the Pacific Amphitheatre--and was dismayed to find no prize in the box. In a world where all the other sureties--like the Red Menace and never hearing the S-word on ABC--seem to have fallen by the wayside, one could always count on that chintzy trinket being there.

Instead there was a slip of paper that read, “Sorry, You are not a winner.” As if I needed to know that. If I were a winner would I be having a dinner of Cracker Jacks, looking for a damned plastic prize that isn’t there?

Maybe a lucky soul will find some grand reward in his or her Cracker Jacks--a gold tooth, maybe, or Madonna’s Kleenex--to offset the sense of betrayal I felt. You can only get fooled so many times, you know. Which made me wonder what I was doing sitting there munching, waiting for Bob Dylan to come on stage.

The last time I’d seen Dylan, a couple of years before--at the Pacific, the “voice of a generation” did his whole indifferent show braying away in some weird donkey language. It was as if he’d stayed too long on Pleasure Island with Pinocchio or something. He’d open his mouth, and instead of “The ghost of electricity howls through the bones of her face,” out would come, “Mgrreeeee snoorff ahooonk ahoooonk ahooonk!”

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Things like this always seem to happen specifically when you’ve taken persons to a concert to show them what the ‘60s were all about. “Ahooonk, ahooonk, ahooonk,” they’d hoot the whole way home, while permanently super-gluing your car radio dial to KROQ. It’s embarrassing.

Dylan’s great early electric music always had a eerie circus-like quality to me. The same way that Fellini’s movies had a skewed, mysterious sense of the circus, Dylan’s peculiar jangle of piano, organ and electric guitar evoked sawdust, whiffs of caramel corn and the flapping of tent canvas in the wind.

Dylan had a go at his own carnival of sorts in the ‘70s, his large Rolling Thunder Revue troupe touring in painted faces, and maybe his more recent incomprehensible performances (remember the Grammy show appearance in which no one knew he’d played “Masters of War” until it was announced afterward?) have also been in a grand carny tradition, namely that of ripping off the customer.

I swore after the last one I went to that I’d never go again, but I’d read a review of a Seattle show in which the critic promised that, incredibly, Dylan had been good again. So I went, and--aside from the Cracker Jacks, which probably weren’t Bob’s fault--it actually was a fine show. At least one out of three words was discernible; the liberties he took with his melodies were those of a questing jazzman rather than a bored, fried automaton, and he’d suddenly decided, after 30 years in the business, that he knew how to play a guitar solo. These, while not exactly polished, were marvels of personality, with a Chaplin-esque whimsy, if anything involving a Fender Stratocaster can be called Chaplin-esque.

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The surprising thing to me about all this is that I even care. Given the trouble we all have keeping a roof over our heads and soy dogs in the larder, who has time to be concerned whether the tousle-haired boy from Hibbing is singing in goat-speak nowadays?

And, working as a music critic, you sometimes get insulated from music. You see so many soulless shows, and so much jewel-boxed product gets chucked over your transom that you start lumping things into categories rather than really hearing them.

In most cases really hearing them is a tremendous downer anyway, because, if music be the conduit of the soul, you realize that most of these musicians don’t, generally speaking, have souls. You start thinking that maybe reincarnation is real, but with the population explosion, there aren’t enough human-grade souls to go around and people are getting born with bovine or insect souls instead. Listen to Billy Ray Cyrus enough and this idea really grows on you.

Despite such reservations, music has been exciting the hell out of me again lately. The incredible life, emotion and invention in the good stuff that’s around has just been bowling me over. We’re talking everything from the hit Tony! Toni! Tone! “Sons of Soul” album to the drum solos in the film “The Gene Krupa Story,” which made me late for work when it cropped up on cable the other day. It’s a ghastly, corny movie, but the ending, where Krupa--stick-synced by Sal Mineo--reclaims his wasted career with one triumphantly bitchin’ solo, just about reduced me to tears.

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I’m getting that sort of rush nearly everywhere I look lately: at shows by Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Neil Young, Ali Farka Toure and others; on new CDs by Bob Telson, the Spanic Boys and the Cranberries; in the used-CD bins on stuff by Louie Jordan, Ray Charles and Betty Carter; and in swap-meet record piles, where I’ve been turning up everything from Sonny Rollins albums to wild 45s like “Bongo Guitar” by Johnny Zorro and “Hillbilly Hades” by Texas Bill Strength.

And those aren’t the only places I’ve been hearing music with more appreciation lately. I was told a couple of nights ago that I was tapping my feet in my sleep. “You were dreaming about playing music, weren’t you?” And indeed I had been dreaming about jamming with some of my favorite players, who were a whole lot better than I was. The feeling was edgy, but exhilarating.

I had a real-life experience that was not dissimilar last month, when an a cappella trio, the Baltimores, was singing at a friend’s party. They’re generous about letting others sing with them, and I did. Typically, I’d have an easier time navigating a Hyundai to the moon than I do landing on the right notes in harmony singing, but suddenly, buoyed by the excellence on all sides, I was nailing these parts. It felt like swimming with dolphins. And it sure felt like music was humanity’s true language, full of the sharing and wonder of life that gets crushed out of our daily monotones.

Unfortunately, this dream the other night was the closest I’ve come since then to doing anything in tune. Still, waking or sleeping, it’s a great feeling, and one that more than made up for the earlier part of the same dream, during which I was interviewing the Beach Boys’ Mike Love in the nude. You don’t know how much I wish I was making this up.

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